Dysfunction as high function

During his New Year’s Day seminar, author Dan Pink shared five trends that he is following in 2010. In the science category, the trend he is keeping an eye on is dysfunction is high function. During the discussion he referenced the Atlantic Monthly article The Science of Success, which considers the possible “up-side” of genetic dysfunction:

Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts.

Re-reading the article last night reminded me of a story I heard many years ago in an episode of Fresh Air focused on Asperger’s Syndrome (paraphrased):

A boy with Asperger’s Syndrome is focused on snakes. He knows about everything there is to know about snakes, and can bring snakes into just about any story or subject. If he can’t make it about snakes, he doesn’t care about it.

For a cumulative school project this boy had to prepare a report about the Battle of Gettysburg. The purpose of the project was to teach research and presentation skills. You guessed it – no snakes, the boy didn’t care and wasn’t doing anything on the project. Until, that is, the teachers and staff came up with the idea, “What if we let him do his report on The Snakes at the Battle of Gettysburg?”

To make a long story short, this got the boy’s attention and he dove right in. To do the project, he had to learn as much or more about the battle and the geography, etc., as any other kid. His project was so good, and so unique, that he was asked to present his project to the entire school. Everyone wanted to hear the presentation about the snakes at the Battle of Gettysburg, and everyone thought it was great.

The kicker here is this: Before this presentation, everyone avoided this boy because all he wanted to talk about was snakes.

I recognize that humans are a social bunch that prefer to socialize with others like themselves, but it is unfortunate – for both the “typical” and “non-typical” populations – that anything that is different is so shunned, before even being given a chance.

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Cultivate your kid’s strengths

I found this bit of wisdom in the book Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. Though geared at self improvement, this quote struck a chord with me as a parent:

The trick is not to work obsessively on the skills and talents you lack, but to focus and cultivate your strengths so that your weaknesses matter less.

The story of Tony DeBlois is an example of this in action. His mother recognized that Tony had serious weaknesses/disabilities to overcome, but also realized that his strength in music could make much of that weakness irrelevant.

All of our kids have their own strengths. Much of it may be hidden from us as parents*, or their strength may be something that we don’t quite understand or appreciate as worth cultivating.

But it is by cultivating these strengths, in all of our kids (and ourselves), that we can help them be successful in whatever they ultimately decide to do.

– – — — —–
* Ferrazzi also gives this observation from Machiavelli: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.”

Ignore everybody (but don’t ignore this book)

Like Rework (which I reviewed last week), Ignore Everybody is my kind of book. Written by Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com, it is made up of 40 short essays that each dive into a very specific idea or question. And pictures, lots of pictures from the cube-grenade gallery at gapingvoid.com.

Based on many years of experience, the advice that MacLeod dispenses is almost brutal in its description of what aspiring artists (used in the loosest, Seth Godin-esque way) have to look forward to, and what they have to do to get there. Just reading the essay titles gives you an idea of what to expect:

  • Put the hours in
  • If your business plan depends on suddenly being “discovered” by some bit shot, your plan will probably fail
  • Keep your day job
  • Selling out is harder than it looks

If you are looking for an “easy ticket” to success, this isn’t the book that will get you there. (Hint: such a book doesn’t exist.)

None of this is new, of course, to those who are interested in pursuing mastery and are willing to put in the effort it takes to achieve that mastery. Who aren’t focused on a specific outcome but are interested in the journey on which they find themselves. There is plenty in the book to reinforce the importance of that attitude:

  • Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether
  • Sing in your own voice
  • Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time
  • Write from the heart
  • The best way to get approval is not to need it

In some ways, this book simply tells us what most of already know. Maybe we know it subconsciously, just under the radar of what we are willing to acknowledge. Maybe we know that it is true but just can’t bring ourselves to do anything about it. But as MacLeod lays out in the opening essay:

GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS. THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.

Good ideas come with a heavy burden, which why so few people execute them. So few people can handle it.

Ignore Everybody simply lays it out on the table to where you can’t ignore it, where you have to decide for yourself, “Can I handle it?”

One of my favorites...

Don’t write them off just yet

Seth Godin doesn’t write about autism, and yet much of what he writes and says comes across as if it were written just for the parents of an autistic child. Today’s article – Accepting limits – from his blog is a perfect example (emphasis is mine):

Isn’t it absurd to focus so much energy on ‘practical’ skills that prep someone for a life of following instructions but relentlessly avoid the difficult work necessary to push someone to reinvent themselves into becoming someone who makes a difference?

And isn’t it even worse to write off a person or an organization merely because of what they are instead of what they might become?

Much of what counts as autism intervention these days focuses on making the child – or the adult – “more normal” or “less autistic”.  Granted there are things that autistic people need to be taught and understand so they can function in the world, there is no denying that. But this doesn’t mean that their uniqueness should be driven out of them in the process.

Don’t write off your child’s future – or worse, your child – just because they are autistic. There is great potential there, if you are willing to do the work necessary to uncover it.

You’re going to love this kid (and this book)

You’re 22 years old, fresh out of school. It’s your first day as a teacher, and you learn that one of your students is a 6 year old autistic boy. You are given a stack of reports and files that tell you, in detail, how “bad” this little boy is and how hard it is going to be to teach him. You want to sneak out the back and run away. And right then the school administrator – grinning, animated, excited – finds you and says: “You’re going to be Jacob’s teacher. That’s fantastic. You’re going to LOVE this kid!

That is the story of Paula Kluth‘s first day, as she recounts it in the preface to her book You’re Going to Love This Kid!.

This is an incredible book. If you are the parent or teacher of a school age autistic child, you should buy, read, absorb this book. If you know someone in those categories, you should buy and read this book, and then give it to that person.

The first chapter alone, a description and discussion of autism unlike any I have seen in books about autism and teaching autistic children, is worth the price of the book.  I’m not an educator myself, but found much that I could use as a parent to help my school system create a more inclusive program.

What struck me the most about the book is that although it focuses on inclusion of autistic children in schools, it is really advocating for the inclusion of ALL students.  Something I hadn’t considered before reading the book, and I would guess that most others haven’t really considered either.

A while back on my blog I asked the question, “Why doesn’t every child have an IEP?”  Some might say that is just not possible, or necessary.  This book explains how to have a program in which every child can have an individual educational experience and, more importantly, why it should be this way.

Not just for our autistic kids. Not just for our “normal” kids. For all kids.

Different is the new normal


What does it mean to be normal? What does it mean to be different? These are big questions in any discussion about autism and autism awareness.

I like what Kristin has to say on the matter (the emphasis is hers):

“Normal” is such a complicated word.

We each grow up with our own entrenched ideas of what normal is, which means, of course, there is no such thing. Yet the world loves to pretend like there is—if normal doesn’t exist, exactly, then at least there’s a perceived ideal normalcy that we should all strive for, or even pretend to have grasped….

There is no “normal”—at least not in a societal sense—and we need to stop pretending there is. We need to stop talking about it, observing the world through it, and assuming it as we report on and read the news.

Most of all, we actively need to teach our kids to identify the falacies embedded in “normal,” and see through to the other side…. We need to embrace rather than hide what makes us different. We need to prove to the world that what they see as “messed up” can be a very beautiful thing.

What I like even more is that Kristin is not talking about autism here, or any other disability for that matter. These are not questions limited to autism and autism awareness, they are questions for us as a whole.

Different, as Kristin says, is the new normal. Time to get used to it.

Parenting is parenting

I started blogging about autism, and being the parent of an autistic son, 5 years ago. My main goal was to help myself make sense of it all, to understand my own feelings about my son’s autism. Here is some of what I’ve figured out.

I hope it helps.

Parenting is a challenge, no matter who your kid is. No matter what you do, someone somewhere will tell you that you are doing it wrong. If you are already a parent, you know what I mean.

How many times have you heard someone tell you that your kids should spend more time outside, less time on the computer or with their video games, more time reading, less time on the phone; that you should spend more / less time with them, give them more / less independence, etc etc. It is no different being the parent of an autistic child, except maybe for the passion with which complete strangers will tell you how poor a job you are doing.

A few things you can expect to hear from others, or read in blogs, etc:

  • “If you don’t start with intensive early therapy and treatment, there is no hope for your child.”
  • “If you start with all that intensive early therapy and treatment and try to change him, he’ll be emotionally scarred for life.”
  • “Why are you trying to mainstream him at school, he would be better off in a special placement.”
  • “Why aren’t you pushing for a mainstream placement, that is where he should be and the school just needs to suck it up.”
  • “You can’t blame that person for getting upset, that outburst was quite disturbing and invasive to others.”
  • “Screw that person. They need to just get over it an realize that everyone is different and has the right to be who they are.”
  • “You need to cure your child of this terrible affliction, recover him from the damage that has been done and get on with your life the way it was supposed to be.”
  • “Your child doesn’t need a cure, you need to accept that he will be different, that your life will be different, and that you need to just get on with it.”

These are, of course, examples from the extremes. But you will quickly find that there is not, in general, a lot of middle ground in terms of how people will judge you.

In your readings and explorations of autism, you will find that there is no known cause, and that some people think that vaccines are the cause. Some will even say that there is no cause (or least no need to find a cause).

Those who think it was caused by vaccines will try to convince you that you need to cure your child through diet or other types of medical procedures, some will say you need intensive behavior therapy. Some will tell you there is no need for a cure.

These are all things you will have to decide for yourself.

As you learn more about autism, you will also find yourself learning more about autism advocacy and all the forms it takes. There are groups of parents, medical professionals, and others that will tell you your child has been poisoned by vaccines and that you need to cure (or “recover”) him through diet or other medical treatment.

There are those that will tell you that you need to cure your child through intensive behavior therapy. Many, though not all, of these advocates will also help you understand the accommodations and supports that you will need and are entitled to. Then of course there are all of the organizations that have formed to promote these various forms of advocacy.

Importantly, the vast majority of these advocates are not autistic themselves.

Once you realize this, you will discover a separate world of autistic autism advocates. You will quickly find that, despite the stereotypes, all autistics are not the same. You will hear that your child wasn’t poisoned by vaccines, or anything else, and that there is no need for a cure. You may also hear or read that some autistics do want to be cured.

You will get plenty of advice – some good, some not so good – about how to raise you child from the perspective of someone who used to be an autistic child. You will hear from autistics diagnosed as adults, and learn what their life was like as an autistic child without the benefit / burden of a diagnosis.

A while back, autism blogger Lisa Jo Rudy challenged parents to “quit autism for just one day.”

Your child with autism may always be autistic, but there are places and circumstances in which it either doesn’t matter – or in which your child’s special talents make autism irrelevant. Whether it’s at the beach, in the woods, at a concert, or creating a work of art – just for one day – go somewhere where autism doesn’t matter.

Just for one day, quit being the parent of a child with autism. And become just a plain, ordinary, loving, proud parent.

Everything I’ve learned about parenting an autistic child can be boiled down to an incredibly simply stated idea (provided to me by a fellow autism dad): Parenting is parenting. My response to Lisa’s challenge reflects this attitude:

Just one day? Every day should be like that. At the very least, every day should start like that. You can’t always control how a day will end up, but only you can control how your day starts.

I am the parent of a trampolinist. I am the parent of a horse-back rider (equestrian?) I am the parent of two pianists. I am the parent of two high school students. I am the parent of two avid gamers. I am the parent of an autistic son and an NT son.

I am, to use your words, “just a plain, ordinary, loving, proud parent.”

Every day.

Everyone will have something to say about how you raise your autistic child, most everyone will judge you in one way or another. In the end, of course, the only person’s judgment of you as a parent that matters is your child’s. All you can do is be a plain, ordinary, loving, proud parent.

Everything else is just details.